Chris Blattman

Is faith based aid a failed experiment?

I’ve loved responses to yesterday’s faith-based aid post. Sadly this is not a week where I have time to think, reflect, and write. I hope you’ll forgive me if I just write.

From one reader,

Any organization with an agenda for converting people into causes in return for helping people in need should not be indulged with.

I think this is correct. Indeed, who would quarrel? So we should be clear what we’re talking about: whether the US government should be supporting faith-based organizations who wear their faith on their sleeve, but don’t actively recruit using tax dollars.

But where does quiet faith end and proselytizing begin? From another reader,

Working in southern Uganda later in my career, I had the opposite experience with World Vision than that described here; there were definitely Christian strings attached to aid. There was proselytism at every turn, including signs posted about Jesus and WV’s mandate over every classroom door in 2007 when I last visited.

I too worry that individuals, and some state-funded organizations, will slip into conversion mode. But are posters proselytizing? Are they what we’re concerned about?

If only the values for other organizations’ aid were so explicit. What if USAID replaced “brought to you by the American people” with “fighting Communism and Islamo-fascism since 1945”?

The line between expressing faith and proselytizing will always be hard to draw, especially where the people served are the poorest and most vulnerable. But that is not necessarily an argument for drawing the line at zero support for faith-based organizations. That seems (dare I say it?) too puritan.

Perhaps it’s not what they say but what they do? Noting the World Vision emphasis on abstinence and faithfulness, a reader comments:

Don’t be fooled into thinking that World Vision aid does not come with strings attached. Their aid decisions are based entirely on their “Christian” beliefs.

All NGOs have values. Some push a human rights agenda. Some market fundamentalism. Some a conservative Christian one. All are guilty of making program decisions based on their principles. If anything, the human rights agenda has less in common with local cultures than the Christian one. Should funding one be banned and the other encouraged?

Here I think we have to be careful. Donors should avoid organizations that spread misinformation about working measures they dislike (like condom use), or actively discourage its use. Donors filter good actions from bad all the time (okay, some of the time) and this is little different than any other area. Is a ban required?

Alanna Shaikh jumps in, suggesting it’s not so easy:

I think faith-based aid given in a non-religious way is easier said than done. If you expertise is in religious aid, then it’s what you know how to give.

…I am honestly confused as to why Kristof decided to bring this up now, when it was pretty clearly a failed experiment.

From Kate, upset with World Vision’s policy of hiring Christians only:

when you require what is essentially a profession of faith from all employees (international or domestic), you’re bound to attract a certain type of aid worker.

If, in practice, if organizations just can’t untie aid from religion, then both Alanna and Kate are right. But is it true? Is faith based aid a failed experiment?

I don’t see it. This comment probably captures my experience so far:

as someone who has a built-in aversion to formalised religion, my experience of christian missionary orgs in Africa has been generally positive. I have found that they are typically there for the long haul; drive fewer white, air-conditioned Toyota Landcruisers; and are generally very committed to the people they work with. Judging by the above comments, mileage varies substantially.

This one too comes close to my view:

For every story about a religious NGO abusing their power or engaging in distasteful practices, there is a story about a secular NGO abusing power or engaging in distasteful practices.

..we’re not talking about funding proselytizing aid workers vs. non-proselytizing aid workers. We’re talking about funding flawed organizations or other flawed organizations.

I would love nothing better than to study the relative effectiveness of NGOs: faith based and not. I have a hunch who wins out, but alas no proof.

Okay, conclusion time. In spite of my own spiritual atheo-agnosticism, here’s my leap of faith:

1. If the constitution forbids US support, so be it. Whaddaya gonna do?

2. Otherwise, set the rules and let the faith based compete. They are here to stay; work with them rather than against them.

3. If there are unsavory practices, let the funding spigots be closed. Incentives matter.

32 Responses

  1. Thanks Chris for the thoughtful examination of the issues. As a World Vision staffer myself, I can state categorically that the organisation forbids proselytism in the strongest possible terms. Proselytism is the giving of aid *in exchange for* some religious transaction (listening to some message or acceptance of some set of religious values, etc). Not only do the industry codes of humanitarianism (Sphere, ICRC/NGO Code of Conduct, etc) require such a focus on needs only, the teachings of Jesus (read Matthew 25:31-46) require it also. So it’s not a question of being inspired to provide humanitarian and development assistance by our faith *or* by human rights values (rather loosely defined), but rather a mix of both. With 41,000 staff there’s a lot of room for interpretation. Clearly, we make mistakes and some of our staff get more zealous than organisational policy allows. But we partner all the time with organisations who don’t share our faith commitment, and most of the time it works out just fine. While we may differ on what motivates us, we are all committed pretty much to the same result: security, development, aid, dignity, opportunity, etc. What’s clear, however, is that the work is deadly serious – yesterday we lost six beloved staff members in Pakistan to terrorist violence. All of them were Muslims, working for a Christian NGO. Unfortunately the neat and tidy rhetorical categories that exist in blog posts don’t exist in real life, which is quite a bit more complicated. Thanks, Chris, for shedding light on some of that complexity.

  2. Rman, what a despicable tone in your comments.

    This is why whatever “the left” is, I’m likely to gravitate that direction than wherever you’re at.

  3. I guess if I were a typical liberal acdemic, I would agree. Unfortunatly the raw quantifiable data is never presented here and for some, general assumptions from the author seem to be enough for them.

    Maybe the research in quantifiable data, like the amount of private vs. institutional dollars, the aid worker themselves and motivation for them to be there and hopefully the actual study will include another important issue, those that are on the ground now, have been and will continue far after those academics continue to write non-quantifiable junk articles expressing personal viewpoints.

    Articles of this calabre are the reason the current American administration is failing and why the policies of the left are in peril.

    To address the authors summation:

    1. If the constitution forbids US support, so be it. Whaddaya gonna do?

    Could you please state the section or reference in the constitution that supports this?

    2. Otherwise, set the rules and let the faith based compete. They are here to stay; work with them rather than against them.

    Or better yet, get your own funding. Apply for the grants and get those boots of yours dirty. There are a whole lot of out of work people at Air America. They would love to have a job writing your grants. Next comes the actual hands on the ground workers, good luck manning that from the pool on the left.

    3. If there are unsavory practices, let the funding spigots be closed. Incentives matter.

    I believe that would be a very effective tool to demonstrate, who is suppling aid and who is willing to go to the extremely difficult places with only one motivation, to show those that are hurting, compassion. Your not going to get the Al Frankin, Barack Obama types dirty in the field.

  4. You said, “All are guilty of making program decisions based on their principles.”

    One such principle is that the only salient principle is efficiency based on a utilitarian ethic or based on a human rights ethic. The constant efforts to appear objective and sweep under the rug any appearance of subjective, value-laden ethics in our efforts makes us less effective. We should celebrate our principles and value them – and yes, put them up for scrutiny – rather than be ashamed of being “guilty” for considering something more than we economists put in our models.

    While there are legitimate discussions about how to most effectively prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, the FBO crowd has been far more interested in prevention than the non-FBO crowd, which has focused more on cure [please note the key word more – I’m not claiming ‘at all’ on either side].

  5. I’m late to this thread so I hope people are still reading. I’d add a couple quick things.

    Although an org like World Vision may try to separate their secular activities from their evangelical activities, this distinction is largely meaningless. I personally know WV workers who work in majority Muslim areas who do their agriculture/education projects one day, then go back to the same villages “on their free time” to lead bible study groups for the minority Christians. How many people in those villages understand or care whether those individuals are on the WV clock or not. From their perspective, it’s all just “the Christians”.

    I think it’s at least more honest to be a straight-up missionary that to play legal games of dividing your activities between your secular self and your devout self. A lot of missionaries do great work, and in my experience they’re highly respected by even those local people who don’t share their faith because (unlike most development workers) they come for the long haul, they learn local languages, and they build relationships. But if these people and their churches want credit for the good work they do as Christians, they should be funded as Christians. That is to say, they should be funded privately!

  6. To add some specifics into a philosophical conversation:

    1) In 2007(?), WHO ran a study (titled “Appreciating Assets”) of faith-based organizations participation in providing healthcare in Sub-Saharan Africa with specific focus on Zambia and Lesotho. Quoting:
    “The study found that FBOs play a much greater role in disease prevention, care and treatment than previously thought in sub-Saharan Africa. The African Religious Health Assets Program (ARHAP) report estimates that between 30% and 70% of healthcare services in Africa are owned by faith-based organizations.”

    Link to the Executive Summary:

    So, does anyone think it’s a good choice to withdraw financial support for 30% to 70% of healthcare services in SSA?

    2) There is one paper that I know of that attempted to do some measurement of FBO health orgs (in Uganda no less) from Sept. 2005. The econometrics used are well beyond my ability to assess, and the conclusions may have been thoroughly debunked already, but if you haven’t seen it, it’s called Working for God by Reinikka and Svensson. Here’s the SSRN link:

  7. Chris, I too would like to see a well-done comparative study of the relative effectiveness. An interesting aspect to consider here is that of selection effects. Do FBOs who proselytize concentrate their work on the most vulnerable populations? Do non-proselytizing FBOs do so? If not, then we also have evidence from less vulnerable groups in which there exists some choice (however limited) on the part of the recipient, especially in the case of conditional aid. Do those who accept aid under these circumstances differ fundamentally in some way?

  8. Thanks for your feedback Chris. The contributions to this conversation have been very interesting. I don’t think this is about religious conversion. Anyone that has worked overseas knows that people in other countries are likely way more religious than North Americans (especially in countries where a lot of aid work takes place). And I don’t think this is about being anti-religion. This is simply about whether government should fund FBO’s. I come from an education background so it really concerns me when FBO’s are miseducating people (or simply leaving out reasonable solutions) based on religions beliefs. Do you want your tax dollars going towards this? Now I have to find out what organization the Canadian government supports… Has me very curious!

  9. Ranil

    “Religious ideals are not rational: therefore should not be [publicly] funded.”
    Without descending into philosophical pedantry, what exactly is “rationale”, or more to the point irrational, in a development context? I don’t know of any publicly funded development initiatives implemented by religious organizations that cannot be defended on rational grounds. Care to give an example?
    The privileging of religious ideology is really a pretty outdated practice.

    1. Justin, I appreciate the discussion, but my point was that religious belief is irrational (not stupid – but it requires a leap of faith, rather than a rational construct). If an FBO does not use its religious beliefs as the basis for its work, then they should not be an FBO. If it does, it is based on an irrational primary concept.

  10. Chris, just to add a slightly different angle. I’m a Christian working in development in the Middle East. However, I don’t work in a FBO, and neither do I want to. Partly this is because I’m a secularist, but also it’s because I don’t want to give the impression that I think non-religious people don’t care about the poor. Perhaps most fundamentally, I don’t think that churches should be in the business of doing development work; they have other important things to be getting on with.

    I think there is probably a danger that aid and conversion get mixed up, but in many cases it will be because of what FBO workers do in their spare time, rather than in the course of their duties. That can be confusing, but it’s difficult to know how to stop it happening.

    My bottom line: missionary work and development work are different and should be done by different organisations. In case you’re interested, I wrote about this myself a while ago.

  11. Justin – I’m aware of that – my point is that it’s still based on the religious ideals; religious ideals are not rational; therefore should not be funded. If the programme is rationally thought through regardless of the religious basis, then they should drop the faith from the organisation and operate on the basis of this rationality.

    1. Ranil, your idea of rationality as something in itself is simply a misconception. You cannot have rationality without ‘towards some end’ and system of thought.

      And as a side-thought, I would say that a lot of project-cycle-thinking is really made to be rational in hindsight.

      Any ‘development’ project, -programme, -activity …. will include meddling with identities. On rare occasion even in the way it was intended.

      In that respect, FBOs have their advantage in being explicit about motivation, which makes it that more easy to assess based on government/public motives.

      1. We’re going to have to disagree here.

        Rationality does not require any end, though it is a system of thought. Rational thought simply requires that all ideas are open and subject to scrutiny. For example, if I had a habit of avoiding walking on the cracks in the pavement, a rational analysis of it would look at whether it makes any practical difference to me whether or not I do; the answer would be not; the only reason I would avoid doing so is because I have convinced myself I should avoid doing so. Hence, it’s an irrational belief.

        I don’t have to have any end to achieve to subject that idea to rational analysis.

        I would however agree that much project cycle work is made to look rational in hindsight – I’d have a big problem with these projects too.

      2. Hi again … yep, i think we do disagree this time.

        Nevertheless, can’t we agree that within rationality as a system of thought, ‘things’ are arranged hierarchically? For something to be rational, something else must be irrational. Now, I’m no post-modernist, so I won’t start arguing that your rejection of avoiding stepping on the cracks as a fully rational act is merely because you’re caught up in modernist discourse. But to bring it a tad closer to the point here, how about means to ‘development’? It doesn’t take long to see that different people and institutions hold different things to be rational which are often conflicting.

        Take IMF versus Action Aid policies. Are they both rational without considering towards an end? Secondly, on what grounds do you determine the rationality of that (/these) end(s)?

        My point is that whether a group does its bedtime reading in the company of St. Paul, Milton Friedman or Antonio Gramsci cannot be a legitimate deciding factor in government spending. What matters are their actual policies, actions and results and how these correspond to government policies.

  12. Luckily Ranil 2000 year old texts don’t give very detailed instructions on how to conduct development projects in 2010. Usually they just provide the motivation. There are exceptions, condom use being one, but even promoting abstinence and monogamy, in my estimation, is only marginally more idealistic than condom usage. My, admittedly anecdotal, experiences have been that condoms are most often used as ballons, water bottles, or play things in many African countries, not for sheathing the ole babymaker.

  13. basically – the primary problem here is not their final actions, but their motivations in the structural sense.

    I have no problem with a deeply religious person going to work in Africa. Many times they stay longer, engage more deeply with the culture etc. than secular people. Perhaps this is because their faith helps them deal with the troubles of difficulties of a hard post better; perhaps it gives them perspective or a sense of duty.

    My problem is when organisations operate on non-rational grounds, grounds that are not open for fundamental debate.

  14. Sorry to be a pedant, but what is atheo-agnosticism? You don’t know if you believe in God and you don’t know ‘which one’ you’d believe in if you did?

    I’m an atheist. I’m deeply against states funding any Faith Based Organisation. Most faiths are by nature fundamentalist (in the correct, rather than modern usage of the word) in the sense that they depend on written texts whose validity is unquestioned; how it is interpreted varies. You have some crazies who believe that every word of the Bible, or Koran or Mahavamsa are absolute stone truth and cannot be interpreted in modern contexts. You have many other intelligent and moderate people who believe that the commandments of their fundamental text can be adapted to changing times.

    The problem arises when policy is dictated not by a rational analysis of what current situations and evidence suggest but by the words written down 2000 or so years ago. Sometimes those words will yield appropriate responses, but this is by chance rather than because they offer a sound basis for analysis.

    Secular NGOs and charities may make wrong decisions, but if they are based on a rational response to current conditions at least they can be assessed and modified.

    Yes – other agencies do have agendas, often ones that are not made as explicit; but they can change over time; and they still represent a response to threats and problems, just not necessarily those of the recipient country. An FBO that uses it’s faith to determine policies is fighting artificial threats and problems because they are only such because they have chosen to follow ancient words as the basis for their understanding of the world.

    And if this isn’t the case, and the FBO doesn’t use an ancient text as it’s guiding principles? Then why be an FBO – drop the religion and run it on rational-secular grounds.

    1. Hm. What is the difference between an assured, uncompromising atheist who propounds universal human rights in a foreign country, and an evangelical with a literal interpretation of the bible?

      1. Human rights are the product of a great deal of argument, though, aren’t they? They’ve been discussed at least since the Greek and Roman philosopher-scholars and their conceptions have changed over time (they originally excluded slaves, for example). They can be debated, and I believe they have. I grew up in Hong Kong and still remember when Deng Xiaoping (I think) derided them as a ‘Western concept’.

        If there was an uncompromising atheist (with the former word a crucial one here) who talks about universal human rights and brooks no argument because he believes in them as unbreakable truths, I’d have a problem with that, a big one.

        The difference would be that the the idea can still be debated, even if the individual won’t let it be -because it’s the product of rational argument, not based on any text invested with greater importance. The Declaration on Human Rights is only important insofar as it embodies an agreement made between actors arguing about what constitutes human rights that should be upheld. Any religious text is given importance because it is a religious text, not because the content has been debated and rationalised before it was entered into the text.

        My problem is most certainly not with religious people. Many I’ve worked with have been better aid workers or better people because their beliefs have given them something that helps them get through hard times or that invests their work with more meaning. I have a great problem with an institution that is set up to uphold values that aren’t open for debate or are not the result of debate.

      2. Ranil,

        Not to badger your comments, but the idea that religious beliefs are not the “result of debate” is extremely ahistorical. The Reformation, the schism between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches, the emergence of Calvinism, just to confine ourselves to Christianity not to mention the uncountable schisms within other religions, all occurred because of profound, and I would judge extremely rationale, debates over the nature of humanity.
        My point is not to defend religion per say but simply to say that such ideologies are not practically, especially when it comes to implementing development projects, more handicapped in the “rationale” department than any other organization.

      3. I have to agree with Justin. Religion is pretty hotly debated. On the other hand, that there is a consensus (in an academic rather than a lobbying sense) that there is such a thing as human rights and what they are, is something I think most philosophers would question.

      4. Jusin – not to worry, debate is always welcome; you’re right, religion has been hotly debated. But not on the basis of rationality; this is impossible because belief in a deity is not rational.

        On your second point about whether the programmes are any less rational than other projects – again, not necessarily. My problem is with the underlying motivation, which being religious, is not rational. If the programmes do not depend on this in some way, they should not be FBOs, but run on the basis of secular-rational argument.

      5. Thanks for that reply, Chris. Here in Haiti I wonder the same… especially when the atheist is a foreign aidworker and the local evangelical lives under a tarp.

      6. Chris has raised a very important point I think but Ranil especially points the major issue in all this debate – evangelistic, impartial, delivery of aid.

        Faith-based does not mean evangelistic or impartial. But neither does none-faith-based or secular mean that agencies are impartial nor coming with an agenda they want to impose.

  15. I’m no aid expert, but I can’t help but wonder if much of the fuss here is too narrowly focused on WV and other Christian aid groups. Would the discussion (and the positions) be different if it wasn’t WV we were talking about? What if it was a conservative Islamic foundation, or a Zionist organization? I suspect that some people who don’t have a problem with WV’s Christian approach would recoil at the thought of non-Christians doing the same thing.

    1. Nathan

      I think its equally plausible that some of the people objecting to the funding of Christian NGOs would not be objecting so strongly if the orgs in question were Buddhist, Taoist or Zoroastrian.

  16. Without meaning to overrun the acceptable number of rhetorical questions asked in one comment, I have struggled with these thoughts ever since my first overseas aid assignment:

    I have definitely seen proselytizing by groups providing physical needs, but like the commenter above, we deceive ourselves if we think amoral, “for the good-of-humanity” proselytizing isn’t just as real in many non-religious aid groups. Isn’t purposefully avoiding all mention of religious motives, especially if those receiving the need are religious people, just as ‘devious’ as Christians or Muslims forcing people to listen to their sermons before giving them bags of beans and rice?

    Also, how do we judge how much of someone’s motives are to gain converts to a religion and how much is actually to provide comfort and hope to those in need? Without the donors’ or religious aid workers’ faith, would they even have motivation to sacrifice their resources?

  17. I wanted to clarify that only about 1/3 of World Vision US’s funding comes from government. At a global level, the government share of funding is far less than that. So it’s a bit misleading to attribute World Vision’s tremendous growth to government funding. These are primarily private donations.

  18. You’ve done a decent job of choosing highlights Chris and your quick writing seems to be right on target to my mind.

    The strongly critical comments seem to demonstrate Kristoff’s point exactly.
    And they appear quite blind to their own religion (not faith) and hypocrisy: ALL people, all agencies and organizations, and their members or employees have values and beliefs, and all the aid comes with a set of strings attached, whether its explicit or not. I’m not defending proselytizing religious agencies that trade aid for conversions, quite the opposite. But Western, secular or atheist, liberal aid workers need to recognize that they are pushing a totally comparable ‘religion’ themselves. From the point of view of many aid recipients I’ve met over the years, the two things don’t look very dissimilar; both require a conversion to the aid-giver’s way of doing things. Carrying out research in agencies for a corruption risk management project two years ago, I was amazed at the similarity between one of the major secular NGO’s and a faith based one with respect to organizational, culture, values, and practices. The secular agency might have taken all the same policies, mission statements, and management guidelines from a religious Christian agency and simply subsitituted words like Christian values, faith, etc. with language about rights-based approaches. ‘Commitment’ to the organization’s values were hugely important to the agency. Spending a week interviewing staff felt more religious than in one of the faith-based agencies. And in fact it was religious. It just wasn’t a religion based on faith in a deity.

    With respect to humanitarian work, which I think is very different than development, some others have pointed out that such an issue is why we have the Code of Conduct. But there remains an accountability gap between self-made codes and compliance.

  19. I think that’s your strongest argument — that the religious aid organizations represent a fundamentally different package from the other aid organizations, and we have to decide if that’s something which we can manage and keep good or if it’s something that is just about doing weird things to desperate and poor people.

    Let’s take an extreme example — what if NAMBLA had a charitable arm? And they were actually really committed, serious people? Ye gads.

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